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Human Stories

Cashew Nuts: The Hidden Cost of Production

Alongside the dramatic rise in health-conscious and vegan diets, cashew nuts are fast becoming the world’s favourite nut. But does this rise in demand come at a cost? Discover the working conditions of cashew processors in India, the hidden costs of cashew processing and how we as consumers can make a difference.

Main Cashew Nut Suppliers

India is a key figure in the global cashew nut trade, a food product with a market valued at some 6.27 billion dollars.1 After Vietnam, India is the largest grower, processor and supplier of cashew nuts to international markets. In 2016, India and Vietnam accounted for 73% of the world’s share, so next time you buy cashew nuts, check the packet - they’re likely from one of those two countries.2

Global Popularity of Cashew Nuts

Farming and processing cashews took off in India in the early twentieth century, making cashew nuts available to wealthy Western consumers by the 1920s.3 Since then, cashew nut sales have skyrocketed. Between 2017 and 2018, over 790,000 metric tons were eaten worldwide, a 32% increase compared to a decade ago. To put this into perspective, the world ate the weight of nearly 100,000 double-decker buses of cashews that year. Cashew is now the third most consumed nut in the world, falling just behind almonds and walnuts.2


Photo: A factory worker hauls bags of unshelled cashew nuts. (Andalou /Getty)

Cashew Nuts on the Rise

Being both highly nutritious and versatile, the cashew nut is in steep demand and a particular favourite of the US and Germany – the world’s top importers.2 More recently, external forces at work have seen the cashew catapulted to the main stage. With the rise of health-conscious and vegan and dairy-free diets, the nut has become a central ingredient in foods like vegan cheese, nut milks, nut butters and energy bars. In 2017, the European import value of cashew nuts surpassed hazelnuts for the first time ever.4 The numbers speak for themselves - research commissioned by The Vegan Society found that the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled between 2014 and 2019.5 A report by British supermarket chain Sainsbury's has even projected that by 2025, vegans and vegetarians will make up a quarter of the British population.6

The Cashew Nut Catch

While this shift to plant-based alternatives could be considered a win for dietary health, this boom in demand comes at a cost often paid by the cashew processors, which in India is a 90% female workforce. As demand rises, buyers – largely supermarkets looking to maximise profits, pressure Indian suppliers to lower costs, who, in the face of intensified market competition, tend to oblige.7  


Workers are often paid by kilo, with supermarkets selling cashew nuts for 200x the price that workers are paid. 

Investigative research, including a detailed report by ActionAid, has revealed the incredibly low wages female processors often receive for their hard work.8 Paid by weight of cashews shelled rather than by hour, a kilo of shelled cashews can pay just 0.05€, while in some supermarkets, the price of cashew nuts per kilo can be around 10€. Unfortunately, low wages are not the only concern. Cashew nut processing is extremely labour-intensive and health-threatening work. To cut costs, factory owners often ignore basic health and safety, putting more workers at risk of permanent physical injury.

Cashew Nuts’ Complex Supply Chains

At the heart of this problem lies a complex supply chain, where people at every level – from the consumers to the buyers, importers, exporters and suppliers – are looking to make a profit. Unfortunately, this often results in negligible profit for those at the bottom of the chain – in this case, the processors. What's more, supermarket demand for low prices pushes importers to buy cashews from cheap, unregulated processing units, where adequate working conditions and fair pay are not secured.2


Photo: A Cashew nut processor wipes the caustic oil released during the deshelling process off her hands. Without gloves, many workers suffer sores and burns from this hazardous liquid.  (Vivian Moos/ Getty)

Then, What Will Make A Difference?

Don’t worry; this isn’t a call to urge you to boycott cashews altogether. Many workers depend on the industry as a crucial source of income. Rather than renouncing the nut, it’s important that, as consumers, we recognise the amount of work that has gone into cashew nut production and use our position to encourage supermarkets to review their supply chains and ensure they only work with suppliers complying with basic working conditions. As Nazneen Kanji, author on the subject and independent researcher, explains, ‘the demand needs to come from consumers wanting to know about supply chains, how retailers are managing them and whether they are guaranteeing certain labour conditions’.

Read Cashew Nuts: How It's Made 

However, since the predominantly female workforce typically comes from impoverished, marginalised communities, they are often dependent on any available local work, which further reduces their bargaining strength when rallying for better pay and working conditions.9 For this reason, increased consumer advocacy needs to be coupled with change at a local scale. Community NGOs and workers' unions must press the Indian government to enforce pro-working laws, adequate health and safety, and fair wages. This two-pronged approach would make all the difference. Kanji tells me: ‘NGOs and local organisations need to work with the government to promote the industry as an important source of employment for women and insist on basic labour and safety standards – this is what will really help’.


The imagery for this article was updated 26/7/2022.

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References
  1. Tridge Intelligence. ‘Cashew Nut Suppliers, Wholesale Prices and Global Market Prices’. Accessed December 10th 2019.
  2. International Nut And Dried Fruit Council (2018). ‘Nuts and Dried Fruits Statistical Yearbook 2017/18’. Accessed 10th December 2019.
  1. FAO - Food and Agriculture Organisation (2001). ‘Small-Scale Cashew Nut Production’. Accessed December 10th 2019.
  2. CBI Ministry of Foriegn Affairs (2019). ‘Exporting Cashew Nuts to Europe’. Accessed December 12th 2019.
  3. The Vegan Society - Statistics. Accessed December 12th 2019.
  4. Sainsbury’s (2019) ‘The Future of Food’ Report. Accessed 12th December 2019.
  5. Traidcraft (2013). ‘Cashing in on Cashews: How Supermarkets Drive Exploitation of Cashew Workers In India’. Accessed 14th December 2019.
  6. Action Aid (2007). ‘Who Pays, How Supermarkets are Keeping Women Workers in Poverty’. Accessed 12th December 2019.
  7. Lindberg (2001). ‘Experience and Identity: A historical account of class, caste, and gender among the cashew workers of Kerala, 1930-2000’. Accessed 12th December 2019.
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